Popular Science on How Genes Can Influence Who We Are

Book review: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan (Amazon / Book Depository)

Bill Sullivan, professor of pharmacology and microbiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, writes that he’s always been curious about why we are the way we are, with all of our many often peculiar differences. So many traits, preferences, and physical qualities seem inherent, unable to be altered — like his strong distaste for broccoli — but why? In Pleased to Meet Me, he sets out in detail how genes influence so much about individuals — from who we vote for to how much we like coffee — and how and why we’ve evolved this way.

Sullivan examines a wide range of traits and behaviors in detail, ranging from sexuality to overeating, preferences for certain foods and repulsions by others, drug and alcohol tolerance (including an eye-opening scientific study of Ozzy Osbourne), illnesses, germs, and ability to fight them, and even things I’d thought were entirely learned with no biological component, like political affiliations. He moves through sections devoted to tastes, addictions, moods, fears, and attractions, among many others.

There is so much that’s fascinating here, and suffice to say there’s more that’s potentially influenced by genetics than I ever thought possible. That’s not to say we should give in and indulge any and every vice — he also emphasizes that although a lot is programmed into our genes, there’s still personal responsibility and choice to manage responses. But it serves as a helpful reminder that much of the hand we’re dealt was beyond our choosing, and moral judgment of others helps nothing.

One of the most fascinating things I learned was how quickly certain factors can be passed on. He uses the example of anxiety not requiring a long evolution and passing from grandparents who learned to experience it, and mice parents passing on fears they’d only just learned to their offspring. A single generation! Not to mention how much our parents’ diets and vices can affect our own desires.

Sometimes it’s a bit unnerving, especially about how what we eat affects us, but it’s not alarmist. He offers some thoughtful ideas and considerations to close each section that take some of the sting out and suggest possibilities for areas we can control. It’s a good blend of accessible science for lay readers and actionable ideas for training our thinking on what we can reasonably do with this information.

To my surprise, this book contains the best scientific argument against an afterlife and anything supernatural I’ve ever read. It’s bold and straightforward. His explanation of brain function is clear and blunt while laying out science that brooks no argument. I wasn’t expecting this topic to appear here but this section, which also covers various belief systems he explains our “diva” brains have developed to imbue sense and meaning where there is none, like the “just-world fallacy,” might’ve been my favorite. He makes short work of myth and fallacy and stays respectful and entirely sensitive while firmly articulating the importance for retiring the “incorrect hypothesis” of a soul.

We should draw conclusions based on the available evidence. Our brain gets married to beliefs, and divorcing them is painful. Getting into bed with a conclusion is a more casual affair.

There is no greater waste of time and energy than quibbling over the supernatural. We have more than enough real problems in the real world that urgently need solving … Perhaps the greatest gift we can leave future generations is to stop filling their fertile minds with spirits and hobgoblins.

I applaud him. (I can also tell that he’s had to make this argument and have nonsensical discussions with people who refuse to be swayed about ghosts or various forms of woo and I wish I’d been armed with this book and its to-the-point scientific breakdowns in the past when in the same position. Happy it exists now!)

What’s unique about Sullivan’s style is how he’s able to drive his points home and make them memorable. He breaks down each topic into easily readable parts, and although it’s very much an information-heavy science book, his examples and explanations couldn’t be easier to follow. I often find myself struggling to comprehend everything I’m reading even in pop science books but it’s not the case here.

It’s peppered with jokes and humorous examples, which also helped some of the points make more sense to me than if they’d been relayed with a straight scientific explanation (“Although rabies announces its presence in the brain with all the subtlety of Lady Gaga…”) They can be a bit dad-jokey, but I found many of them pretty hilarious. I’m still laughing about one about the Cowardly Lion and a fecal transplant every time it pops into my head.

I’ve been thinking of this book often since finishing it, and I think I’ll be returning to it often as well, because there are so many times that the topics it covers arise — whether in the news, conversation, other reading — everywhere, really. There’s so much misinformation allowed to proliferate about many of these, perhaps especially in terms of moral judgments about addiction, weight, and the like that have a heavy genetic component. Everyone can benefit from a closer look at the factors that comprise us and the deeper understanding Sullivan provides.

Pleased to Meet Me:
Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces that Make Us Who We Are

by Bill Sullivan
published August 6, 2019 by National Geographic 

Amazon / Book Depository

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours for unbiased review.

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26 thoughts on “Popular Science on How Genes Can Influence Who We Are

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  1. The way you feel about this book and how it is on your mind a lot is how I feel about No Visible Bruises, though to be honest I’m getting annoyed with myself for how much I mention it.

    Just today I was talking to my mom about how much my nine-year-old niece acts just like me (and it’s none of the good parts). It makes me so sad, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I was trying to explain how she likely feels and will react when she starts crying over something that seems like small potatoes to everyone else. Like, let her lay on the floor where you can still see her, but don’t engage with her beyond head pats. Stuff like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love a book that keeps you thinking long after you’ve finished it. It’s nice to feel like you’re really getting something from a book. Thank you for being on this tour, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sara @ TLC Book Tours

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  3. I’ll admit, your mentioning a joke about the Cowardly Lion and a fecal transplant made me laugh out loud. That genetics plays a stronger role than we care to think in our day to day lives is something I think about almost on a daily basis. Why do I rarely get sick, but some friends get knocked down with illnesses on a much more regular basis? Why does one child act this one way, despite the fact that I’ve been working with him since birth on NOT acting that way? I certainly don’t think it’s a death knell if our genetics have us wired a certain way, it just might take more effort to overcome that particular thing than it would for someone else. Probably I should just read the book already. LOL. Anyway, thanks for being on the tour!

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    1. The way he makes that joke is funnier, I promise. I don’t know why that one stuck in my head but I couldn’t stop laughing.

      And it’s the same for me, I think about it often but even more now since reading this — he makes it so clear how much of a role genetics plays in almost everything about us and now I can’t stop noticing things that relate to it. And you’re right, none of it should be a death knell, just better to be aware of certain things that we have to work a little harder on. I appreciated so much of it for that, and it helped me make sense of a lot of things that seemed odd to me in the past too. It’s an amazing book. Thank you for including me on the tour!

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  4. Excellent review! The afterlife argument kind of freaked me out because it was so well-done and while I don’t believe in any particular kind of afterlife, it’s comforting to think that things just don’t end. I really had to struggle with coming to terms with that one, but still appreciated it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks. I never tire of reading about the free will vs. fate quandary. Sullivan’s book sounds like Sam Harris’s “Free Will.” Harris argues that free will is an illusion because our brains make choices based on preferences and beliefs that have been developing since birth. But his book is short, a bare-bones argument. Sullivan’s book sounds more entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one was definitely entertaining, I can promise you that. Even more than I expected it to be. It kind of helped the information to land, since it was so readable and fun (but not dumbed down, either). I haven’t heard of Harris’s book but that does sound similar in part to some of the information here. Sounds like it’s worth reading, thanks for the recommendation!

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